Sometimes disaster happens. Sometimes the first people on scene are locals. Sometimes locals gather together into volunteer associations. Sometimes those associations call themselves Fire Fighters. After they become an association they get to go out on incidents with or to the aid of state and federal resources. Sometimes the state and federal resources provide us with learning opportunities so that when a fire, medical emergency, or natural disaster occurs, we get to take charge instead of being a background setting.
You’ve all heard me talk about wild land fires and how oddly fun they are even though you’re risking your life, you are still serving people and doing something to better your community. The stakes are a little higher when you talk about buildings on fire.
This past week I was able to respond to a fire in the vicinity. It wasn’t in our department’s area, but it was close and it wasn’t long before they called us in for “mutual aid” at the unholy hour of 3:00 in the morning. Fortunately it wasn’t a house and nobody got hurt, but it was a string of businesses in Idaho City. It was a historical site for that matter which in this case means, there were not very many safety measures built into the buildings. Four businesses were nearly burnt to the ground even by the time we got there and the last was in bad shape.
It was amazing how much we could see in the dark, but there were several street lights and innumerable headlights shining on the buildings. The roof was plated with metal which is a good thing in snow/fire country, but they had only used the metal to cover up wooden shakes. The shakes were burning underneath the metal and most of the attic in the last building was ablaze.
Unable to reach the fire from the outside, and unwilling to enter the building without knowing if it was stable, we were assisted by a tractor in pulling the roof nearly off. The bucket ripped large holes in the roof and we were able to see live flame and smoke aplenty.
We dropped about 200 feet of hose between the truck and the fire hydrant so we had enough water to go around and we certainly needed it as our truck only carries 500 gallons. We had one hose stretched out in front of the truck and we could cover the entire front, side and back of the building with it. There was another truck from another department covering those three faces as well and when the tractor started ripping the roof off, we two crews were able to get good angles on the holes to put out the fire.
We worked thus until about 6:00 when the flames began dying down and the cool of the morning took over the job for us. Weather is a large factor in fire and the cooler the air is, the cooler the fire is and the less it takes to put it out. By this time local businesses had started serving coffee and breakfast sandwiches, something we all desperately needed. Not being a coffee drinker on an ordinary basis, I was quite pleased for the caffeine boost to help me along.
After breakfast we started ripping into the buildings by hand to put out what was left of the fire. Only small pockets remained, and we were careful to watch our surroundings anytime we came onto the board-walk or inside the buildings. There was an endless supply of nails on the floors and sticking out of boards, metal and walls so we had to be careful about foot placement, where we stood, where we sprayed water, where we did anything.
The thought of spraying water reminds me, the structure nozzles are powerful and pushed me around pretty good. In my own defense, I am not a very large person, but even the guys on the department were manhandled by the water. A 2 1/2 inch hose-line can push a lot of water and it can be remarkably heavy. Any movement at the nozzle affects the entire hose and if you’re holding on behind the front-man, you can get pushed by him turning the hose on and off.
With only a maximum of two hours of sleep under my belt, I was glad to quit at 8:30 and make for home. The fire was out and it was down to mop-up and salvage. We were not the local department so they cut us loose and we were able to go home.
As a closing thought, there is nothing quite like a structure fire. Nothing compares to its spectacular showing, but then nothing compares to the awful destruction either. Four businesses were destroyed in a small town, four businesses that depend largely on summer traffic and you can guarantee they won’t be getting that. There was next to no salvage and the proprietors were left with a heap of ashes for their hard work.
The funny thing about firefighting is the unique experience you get with each encounter.
The first time I was on a fire, it was already a huge operation with hundreds of workers, aircraft, trucks, ect, on it that I didn’t even get to see the fire itself. I did get to help with traffic control and the landing zone for the Helicopters. The second day on that fire I was able to work with one of our department’s trucks at “The Pumpkin.” (A large orange pool for filling up water buckets.)
The next few times I was out, including this year, it has been actual, hands on, digging-in-dirt, playing-with-water, firefighting. A dirtier job I have never done. The first time I was out I got so messy I was almost unrecognizable. Since then I have learned the fine art of “No, your nose doesn’t itch.”
The nice thing about being a volunteer is the kind of people you get to work with. Generally they are A-Type personalities who are there for the right reasons: protecting people and homes, and learning safety with a dangerous situation. The hard part is realizing it is still dangerous even when we’re having fun, which we do. It’s a challenge and each time is different.
This last time, we were called out to assist another department on a 3 acre fire. We broke the transfer case carriage on our truck en route. We also had to wade through spring runoff in a river to get to the fire, which was a first in even our most veteran’s experience. Interestingly enough, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. My boots weren’t quite broken in yet, but as soon as I hit the water, they molded to my feet and now they are really comfortable.
The fire itself was about 3 days old. It had smoldered in the cold for a long time before it ever hit enough fuel to really get going. It was an easy day, and we were only there for about 2 hours before the fire was out, or mostly out, and we were on our way. Not to say it was a loss for us, any time we can get out and have a shake down is good experience. Each time we get better, more efficient, and skilled.
Being a Volunteer Firefighter is cool for a lot of reasons, helping your community, driving big trucks, playing with fire and water at the same time. The duds are less than cool but they do their job and protect you. Although sometimes we get to work behind the scenes with the government, that isn’t the norm. Volunteers primarily get to work on the actual fire, or nothing.
The actual fire though, is quite a bit of fun. There is a whole lot of common sense needed to work a fire. You need to be aware of escape routes and safety zones, the tools you’re using and their applications. Even where the water hose is lying, or the truck is parked is extremely important and could have nasty repercussions if done badly or without thought. According to some unnamed clause of Murphy’s Law, fires generally occur in bad places. Perhaps there’s bad parking, cliffs, steep embankments, power poles, ect.
For the two fires I have gotten to work, I have found a myriad subtle problems needing to be overcome. It provides a challenge for the mind as well as for the body. One way to break a fire, and keep it from spreading is to surround it with a trench, which has to be deep enough to catch rolling logs or coals and has to be free of anything flammable. But when you’re cutting through three inches of sod and pine duff you have your work cut out for you and if you’re on your own, it can take a long time. The woods of northwestern America have no shortage of curve balls to throw at a firefighter. Terrain is a huge factor and it is amazing how the simple shape of the land can direct a fire. Of course steep hills will cause the fire to move faster, but if wind is working in the opposite direction, the fire can begin “backing” or moving against its origin.
After the fire is contained, (there is a perimeter around the entire blaze), then begins “mop-up”. The black burned areas become safe and you have to watch out for new problems. White means hot and you have to be careful where you walk. If a stump has been burned out, it can smolder deep into its roots, forming a deep, hot, hole in the ground that can be difficult to see if the top is cool and blackened to hide the hot coals underneath. You have to go in with your hands to feel the heat and roll logs over to cool the undersides as well.
Needless to say with all these tasks ahead, there is always the guarantee that you will be absolutely disgustingly dirty when you are done, and there is no way you can even get in the house without heading straight for the shower. And there is the assurance you will be up much later than you want to be.
As many of my friends and family probably already know, I spent this summer as a volunteer firefighter. Naturally, it interfered with my writing and blogging a bit… but the experience was well worth it. Sure, I don’t get paid to go out and fight fire, but you gain a sense of community with just a bunch of friends out fighting fires.
Our little Fire Department is fairly well outdated, but we still have made an impact on our community. (Yes, I do consider not letting their houses burn down an impact.) When you get a call that there is a fire, especially in and amongst houses, you have a feeling of satisfaction knowing that you can stop it. At the very least, knowing you’re going to try to stop it and not just sit around on your hands is satisfying.
I joined this winter because my Dad joined over a year ago and thoroughly enjoys it, and not because it is a nice, easy way to make money. We don’t make any money at it; in fact, you have to delve into your own pocket to supply yourself with proper gear. I buy my own snacks, boots, socks, shirts, hats… things like that.
Remarkably enough, I hardly touched the stuff I put in my pack. Personally I don’t want to stop working long enough to munch on some jerky or even drink enough water, (don’t worry, I get thoroughly scolded for that and I am trying to do better.)
I was able to play a role in three fires this summer. The first fire was fairly superficial, but it was good to get out and get a look at how things work. I worked on one of our trucks to wet down the landing zone for the helicopter carrying hotshots into the fire (known fondly as the Mack Fire), which was fairly well off the beaten track. We couldn’t even get a truck up to it, not that the one person who initially responded would have tried on his own. And not to condemn him, for going in by himself would have been foolish in the best of scenarios and could have cost him his life in the worst. Our #1 priority is protecting our firefighters. If we go in and get ourselves hurt or trapped, we just make the problem worse for other people.
This particular day was extremely dry, there had been an excess of dry lightning the day before and there were several fires burning around us, I do believe the Mack Fire was the largest of them, and it lasted the longest in our area. It was started by a lightning strike the night before and it took it until 2:00pm the next day for it to really get started up.
I showed up at about 3:30pm and snapped a few pictures before starting work on the landing zone. As I said, it was very dry and every time the helicopter landed, it kicked up clouds upon clouds of dust. We had to resort to standing behind the truck eventually, but that didn’t work because the dust came up under the truck and hit us in the faces. We were able to find a stand of trees that blocked the wind pretty well and allowed us to control traffic.
We did have to control traffic too; for some reason, fire isn’t a good enough reason for people to leave their campsites. Besides, people like to come look at what all the strange people in green and yellow uniforms are doing. They don’t seem to realize that they impede the movement of equipment and just cause extra frustration in an already precarious situation.
A word of wisdom: If there is a fire, you can hear about it on the news, the people fighting it are not appreciative of your immediate curiosity.
The next day we got to wet down the area around the dunk-tank (Or pumpkin.) It is amazing how the pilots can guide the bucket into something smaller than a back yard swimming pool. That particular job was boring but absolutely necessary. We were able to set up the pump to spray while we drove around the pumpkin. Therefore we did not have to pull hose and then coil it up really fast for the helicopter to come in.
All in all, for a first experience, it gave me a sense of how the process works and how to coordinate with state resources. It made me very happy to be able to help out in my community and to know what was going on first hand.